Unveiling his proposed $494.9 million budget this week, Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan remarked that when he took office three years ago, he was warned to watch the school budget above all else because the school board was known for "hiding the pencils."
It was his way of explaining why he chose to give the school system $10 million less than school superintendent Edward J. Feeney requested on March 1. Feeney said his was a "bare-bones budget" but at his press conference Monday, Hogan said:
"I guarantee you the words 'bare bones' have been used eight times in the last eight years. I don't think the school board has ever gotten a fully funded budget. The school board knows that they won't get their budget fully funded - it never has."
The curtain rose on the county budget opera last November when the county teachers asked for a hefty 42.4 percent raise. In the second act, the school board submitted to Hogan on March 1 a $309 million budget that they expected him to cut by $13 million. That budget included, among other things, $3.2 million for a reduction in elementary-school class sizes, and $14 million reserved for a settlement with the 7,000 teachers which would amount to about a 9.3 percent increase.
Hogan eliminated the class size reduction, calling it unjustified by studies. He took $2.7 million from the contract-settlement reserve fund, saying it still leaves enough to give teachers and non-teaching union employes an unspecified raise in excess of the 4.8 percent being considered for federal employes. He also slashed one-third of the elementary school guidance counselors, and a $384,000 Junior ROTC program the school board has been trying to start for the last few years.
Board members expected the cuts, and reiterated their grave concerns for the health of the school system. They say they felt Hogan's property tax reduction of 19 cents per $100 of assessed valuation cuts at the heart of of quality education. But like the teachers, still negotiating their contract in the wings, they know the opera won't be over until the "fat lady," the County Council, sings.
The Council will begin its budget deliberations this week. In the end it will decide the size of any potential tax cut, and how much money the school board will get to run its programs and increase teacher salaries.
"Historically, the council has come down on the side of education. "I'm sure their optimism is based on that history," said council member Deborah R. Marshall, recalling that the council in the past has restored funds cut by Hogan.
On the other hand, she said:
"We're going to be hard pressed to do as we have in the past this year. This is the year that TRIM (the county tax limitation measure) is really going to kick us," she said. "This is the year TRIM should have been repealed," she added.
Council member Anne Lombardi was a little more adamant. While she agreed with Hogan that there probably is some fat in the school budget she said:
"I'm at a stage where I'm not about to cut anything about education. If you do you've got your priorities wrong. I don't think I can go back to the school system and cut. There's nothing there to cut." Lombardi went on to call Hogan's planned tax cut "a reckless decrease."
Hogan called the school budget "fair" and defended the quality of public education in the county. His budget message highlighted a 9.4 percent increase spending per pupil -- to almost $2,600, higher than the Maryland and national averages. Absolute county dollars spent, however, would actually decline slightly from the $171.6 million spent last year.
Hogan said it was unfair to compare the county school system to those of Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which will spend $2,755 and $3,127 respectively on each student this year, because of their wealthier tax bases. It is his goal, he said, to cut taxes in order to attract residential and commercial wealth that will bring Prince George's tax base abreast of its more affluent neighbors.
"I think his basic premise is absolutely wrong," said school board member Angelo Castelli, who sponsored the class-size reduction that Hogan cut. "you build an education facility that is absolutely outstanding, and people will break the walls down to get into your house. Simply reducing taxes will not make Prince George's competitive. I think we have reached the point of diminishing returns."